How I Fell in Love with Cork

Wine Cork Stoppers
This is not a love at first sight story. No, when my partner, Stephen Yemm, first suggested to me adding yet another material to our product line, during the go-go days before the economic crash of 2008, it was the last thing in the world that I wanted to contemplate. I had a full plate. Both of my in-laws were going through cancer treatments. I had two young children in my home. Our business was going like gang-busters, so much, that the demands of my day, simply pulled me through, with only what needed to get done, getting done; and those things that simply ought to get done, often postponed. I remember saying to him – “as long as you don’t need me to do it, go for it.”

And he found a way by enlisting the sheltered workshop for the developmentally disabled in our community, which we had long been involved in the welfare of, and not simply exploiting them as a low-cost alternative. So, we were quite happy to share our incipient business with their efforts to provide meaningful employment to people who might have difficulty being employed otherwise.

However, something happened to me along the way and my passion was engaged – even though I was still thankful, the effort required little direct labor from my own self. In January 2007, I read an article in the Audubon’s magazine titled “Cork Screwed” by Susan McGrath and I understood the bigger picture that we were part of a support for. Her point was that synthetic and screw-top stoppers have been replacing real cork — and that it was threatening an entire ecosystem.

Alentejo Montados Forest
In the Cork Montado regions, cork is sustainably harvested only once every 10 or more years. Extra years are often added if drought is a factor. Cork Montados resemble the savannas of East Africa, with the wide oaks irregularly spaced in meadows of mixed grasses and shrubs. They occur today principally in Portugal and Spain and, to a lesser extent, in France, Italy, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

The author poetically describes the Tiradores (the cork strippers) as being “a natural part of the landscape. They flow from tree to tree, working them over the way a flock of songbirds does.” A good tiradora is a skilled artist, a master at what he does – cutting precisely through the outer bark and no deeper. Eventually discarding his tool and using his hands to pull the plank gently away from the tree.

Bonelli's Eagle

Bonelli’s Eagle

Ornithologists who study this region will tell you it has “some of the richest biological diversity in the Mediterranean”. And so I learned, not only does real cork support an indigenous and sustainable lifestyle for the human tiradores and their families, but the presence of this protected region does other very important things. Iberian mixed oak forests support the majority of Europe’s Bonelli’s eagles (now numbering fewer than 1,000 pairs), the last 180 breeding pairs of Spanish imperial eagles, and fewer than 100 Iberian lynx. Cork-oak forests across the Mediterranean, in Algeria and Tunisia, harbor some of the world’s last Barbary deer.
Iberian Lynx

Iberian Lynx

McGrath in her Audubon article shares with us that “Laws of one kind or another have protected Portuguese cork oaks since the year 1259. As a result, montado still covers 1.7 million acres here, mostly in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. But it would be a dangerous mistake to assume that abundance today assures the montados’ safety in years to come, conservationists say. The slow-growing cork oaks are the ‘gold of Portugal’, a tirador told McGrath. They’ve been preserved because they provide an invaluable source of income for the farmers who own them. But 70 percent of cork revenues come from the wine industry; flooring, insulation, and cork’s myriad other uses barely pay their way. And now, increasingly, the wine industry is turning to alternatives to cork.”

Through the centuries, cork farms have weathered fire, drought and overgrazing; wars, revolution, land collectivization, and land restitution; ill-conceived agricultural subsidies, good and bad market cycles. What no one in the area anticipated was the development of alternatives to cork – synthetics and metal screw caps. Even though the cork region is still protected, that could change very quickly, if their value drops away. And cork and it’s financial support of local farmers, is not the only important value that would be impacted, if that happens.

Alentejo Cattle w Cork Oak
The World Wide Fund for Nature published a report in 2006 that laid out the economic and environmental impacts from a switch to cork alternatives that predicted that if trends continue, “three-quarters of the world’s cork forests could be lost within 10 years.” Cork harvesting offers a more sustainable and holistic model of extensive land use that is easier on soil, water, and wildlife but produces smaller yields than large-scale, industrial agriculture for growing food. The Montado farms have a traditional Southern European mixture of livestock, a few crops, hunting leases for pigeon and partridge, organic honey production, wild mushrooms, and so on. But the bulk of these farms’ income is generated by cork. If cork revenues dried up, this countryside, because it is pretty, sunny, and inexpensive, would attract wealthy urban Portuguese and duplicate the holiday-bungalow–building boom that has occurred in other areas. The presence of the cork montados prevents the desertification of Portugal and the march of the Sahara onto the European continent.

There you have it in summarized form. How could I not care ? By teaching others, passionately, about why choosing wines with real cork stoppers matters to a bigger picture, I am playing a role in preserving them and protecting all that is valuable about their existence. In 2004, our business began a grass-roots wine cork stopper recycling program. You can find details on our website at this link – “Recycle Your Wine Corks“.

Yemm & Hart Cork Tile

Yemm & Hart Cork Tile

While our primary focus in this effort is to create new building products – floor tiles or surfacing material – when requested, we consider alternative applications for the corks that people send to us at their cost (we do have plans ultimately to “buy” corks and support fund-raising activities but the economy has proven a constraint upon this effort reaching its full potential thus far). One lady, Cathy Gary of Coldwater Mississippi, is an example of someone that we have allowed to purchase some corks (we have storage and processing costs for the corks that we receive, even though we do not pay at this time for those materials). She handcrafts wreaths from them. In 2008, we bought a couple as Christmas Gifts for our mothers; and then, discovered that they were reducing clutter and expressly asked that we not give them such things.

7th Annual  Wreath & Menorah Design Competition  & Charity Auction

7th Annual
Wreath & Menorah Design Competition
& Charity Auction

The wreaths have sat un-used in the box they were received in until this year. One of our contacts, Color Art of St Louis, is sponsoring in conjunction with Steelcase and others, the 7th Annual Wreath and Menorah Design Competition and Charity Auction on Wed, Dec 11th from 6-8pm at the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St Louis. So, we donated the two wreaths to that effort.

The Wine & Cork Connection

When people drink wine, They are celebrating life, They are celebrating their life or The life of family and friends, They are celebrating the life Of the vine and the grape, The skilled hands of the vintner. When the wine is all gone There often remains at the table, A small reminder of life. It’s the wine cork stopper. The centuries old solution To preserve the special taste Of wine stored in stone.

Why? that little cork is bark. Bark from a tree, a mighty tree. A tree that lives In just a few places, On our planet Earth. A tree that is endangered. If the use of wine corks declines, The magnificent cork oak Is threatened with being cut down, To make more living space for the Coastal loving people. Once a cork tree is gone, It is rarely replanted Because it takes generations to grow From seedling to cork bark.

When people save their corks, They are saving some of this life. They are saying that they want it to continue. It surely must have a longer useful life, People want to believe, When the wine corks are transformed Into something all may use and see, Awareness is renewed About the mighty cork oak tree. And drinking that wine With a real cork stopper Becomes a cause For even more celebration. Drinking wine is a celebration of life.


Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer



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